Teaching Profession Opinion

Of Teachers’ Unions, Democracy, & ‘Civic Mondays’

By Leo Casey — October 02, 2014 7 min read
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Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute writes to Deborah Meier on the Bridging Differences blog again today. Catch up on the conversation here.


One of the more promising developments on the American political landscape is the “Moral Monday” movement that emerged out of North Carolina. The idea behind the movement is a simple one: The ideals of social justice we profess in our houses of worship on Saturday and Sunday must become the foundation of our lives as citizens on Monday. In this stance one hears the echoes of the powerful civil rights movement tradition, which understands American democracy not as a completed “fact,” but as the product of ongoing work and struggle.

The Moral Monday movement came to mind in reading your words this week. Democracy is our national civic faith—virtually every American professes allegiance to it. But practicing democracy is a different matter. We are a nation in need of a “Civic Monday” movement. And education needs such a movement as much as any part of American society.

Take the complaint that “politics” has intruded on “education.” While no one would deny that there are times when education is exploited for narrow partisan advantage, this objection is most often aimed at an educational policy deemed objectionable. Underlying it is the view, widely held among members of the power elite, that one should not have to convince one’s fellow citizens of the value of their educational agenda. Somehow my educational ideas are so obviously correct, so beyond question, that I need not engage in democratic deliberation with others holding different views. This has been the impulse, I would argue, behind mayoral control: It was a means for imposing educational policies, such as mass school closures and intensified testing, that were deeply unpopular and could not have been adopted with a more inclusive and democratic decisionmaking process. The defense of centralizing education power in the hands of one individual was that the mayor was elected, and so was accountable to the people for his policies. But note how power elite support for mayoral control has suddenly waned, now that the electorates in cities such as New York City and Newark, N.J., have elected mayors with mandates to reverse these unpopular educational policies.

In a vital book on education, race, and American democracy, Danielle Allen makes a powerful case that the heart of democracy is the capacity to “talk to strangers,” to hold a dialogue, to reason, and to deliberate with one’s fellow citizens in a context of civic trust. Disagreements over policy are an unavoidable fact of life in a free, pluralist society that contains many different communities of interest, as well as in our schools and unions. What the commitment to democracy requires of us is that we be prepared to engage in ongoing, inclusive civic conversation and deliberation over those disagreements, so that the decisions we reach are more fully considered and more deeply reflective of the will of the community. In a contemporary political culture dominated by 10-second sound bites and attack ads, genuine civic conversation and deliberation is no small achievement.

As a general principle, a commitment to civic conversation and deliberation seems easy enough. But when we actually practice it—in our schools, in our unions, and in our communities—it is far from easy. As teachers who have dedicated our professional lives to the education of young people, we have thought long and hard about different educational policies, reflecting upon their value in the light of our experiences in classrooms and in schools.

We do not enter lightly into advocacy for a particular education policy. But a commitment to civic conversation and deliberation starts with an understanding that, for all we may bring as individuals to democratic decisionmaking, we are still fallible beings who do not possess all of the policy answers. Negotiation and give-and-take are, as you write, central democratic practices. While there is no guarantee that the collective wisdom that results from a process of genuine conversation and deliberation will result in the best decision in every case, it will do so far more often than not and far more often than autocratic decisionmaking.

When we “talk to strangers” in our schools, our unions, and our communities, we quickly come to understand that, while majority rule is an important part of this strong democracy, there are vital limits to what a majority can do if it is to be democratic. It cannot diminish the freedoms—especially freedom of expression, of publication, and of association—that are indispensable to genuine conversation and deliberation. It cannot undermine the political equality of those who engage in conversation and deliberation. Majority rule must be paired with minority rights. A democratic majority cannot segregate the schools because they cannot abide the prospect of their children mixing with other people’s children. And a democratic majority cannot forbid the free discussion of ideas in its schools. Democracy can only survive on a foundation of liberty and equality.

You point out, Deb, that not only negotiations, but trade-offs, are unavoidable in democracies. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) had a proud record of being a clean, democratically run union and a tradition of strong local autonomy. But human fallibility is a problem in every democracy, and in the early 2000s, the union uncovered financial corruption in two large locals for the first time in its nine decades of existence. In order to keep faith with our members that we had done everything possible to ensure that such events did not recur, we had to introduce limits on the financial autonomy of locals. In a perfect world, the AFT would not have taken such a step, but in that context, it was a necessary trade-off.

Where we have some disagreement, Deb, is your view of the role of caucuses in teachers’ unions, with your references to New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the AFT. The UFT, where I served as a vice president for six years, is the largest union local in the United States, with more than 200,000 members; the AFT has more than 1.6 million members. In institutions of that size, democratic decisionmaking for the union as a whole must generally take the form of a representative democracy, in which elected officers and delegates deliberate and make decisions for the entire membership.[1] (At the school level, union chapters can and should be much more of a participatory democracy, in which all members are involved in decisionmaking.) In a representative democracy, political parties—or in the case of the union, caucuses—play an essential role in democratic decisionmaking because they make it possible for individuals of similar minds to come together and develop a common platform of policy positions. This platform provides the basis for a party or a caucus to run for union leadership and delegates in elections.

Political scientists describe the role of political parties in a representative democracy as one of organizing and aggregating interests: By providing a choice of different policy positions in an election, political parties make it possible for the different interests within the electorate to have a meaningful impact on the political direction of government. The same is true of caucuses in unions. (The American political party system is dysfunctional in some major ways, but that is a discussion for another place.)

As you correctly point out, democracy demands a lot of time and energy from those who participate in it. For a democracy to persist, its participants must believe that their time and energy is respected: When a democratic decision is reached after full deliberation, it must be faithfully implemented. When this does not happen, the participants will quickly decide—and rightly so—that the process is a charade. In a representative democracy, this is true not only of the institution itself, but also of the parties or caucuses within it. If a party or caucus goes through a process of deliberation and democratic decisionmaking to arrive at a policy position, and then the individuals who make up that party or caucus decide to ignore the democratic decisionmaking and the party or caucus position, why have a party or caucus? Why spend your evenings late into the night in party and caucus meetings?

To honor their democratic decisionmaking processes, some parties and caucuses adopt an understanding that is known as cabinet rule in the British parliamentary system: Once a democratic decision has been made within the party or caucus, its members are obliged to not oppose it in Parliament.[2] If the matter in question is one of fundamental principle, one can always leave the party or caucus and oppose it. In my view, this understanding is essential for a caucus to function as a democratic body.


[1] There is one exception to this rule: The UFT membership does vote directly on the final ratification of a collective bargaining agreement and on going on strike, because they are such important decisions. But the extraordinary steps that the union must take to make sure a contract ratification and a strike vote is a democratic process demonstrates that a more general “rule by referendum” would be completely unworkable.

[2] You call this “democratic centralist,” which is the term used within Leninist parties for an authoritarian form of internal party discipline. This is a pejorative and misleading use of the term.

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